The Analytical Group of AzVision.az

The Liquid Problem | Long Read

// There is no ‘lack of water’ problem per se, there is one of mismanagement

H
umanity did not think of water as an EXHAUSTIBLE resource until recent decades, because we have used it as an INEXHAUSTIBLE, renewable one for centuries. After all, how can we run out of water?! The issue sounds incoherent at first: mankind returns the water back to nature once they have used it. We do not burn it unlike oil. Water does not leave planet Earth. It merely goes round in an endless circle. So, why should it diminish?!

This pattern of thought prevents us from understanding the problem at hand fully. The reality is quite different. True, the volume of water on Earth is constant , and it indeed does not decrease with use unlike oil. However, due to uneven distribution, the availability of this vital resource is dwindling where it is most needed . The global population grows by 1.1 percent each year, which translates to 84 million people . Drinking water resources must also increase by 60 million cubic meters annually to provide for such growth. This is such a great number that even if we do return the water we use back to nature, it does not have enough time to ‘digest’ it and replete its resources. For instance, groundwater renewal rate is only 1% per year . Therefore, the reserves are gradually shrinking. 

Global water consumption growth dynamic. Source: Global International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGB) While depletion is one hand of the problem, pollution is the other. Rivers and lakes are held back from the balance as they get contaminated to unsuitability.  While there are 750 cubic meters of water per capita at the moment, the number is to drop to a mere 450 by 205080% of global population will fall under a mark, defined as ‘water scarcity’ by the UN. Various regions will experience the aftermath of the problem differently due to uneven distribution of water resources around the globe.

Denis Sorokin, head of regional information centre at the Scientific Information Centre of the Interstate Coordination Water Commission of Central Asia in Uzbekistan says in his article for AzVision that Europe and Asia, which account for 70% of world’s population, contain only 39% of global river water reserves. Only 7% of the total water supply worldwide is concentrated in Europe, with almost 20% of global population. While the vicinities of several large rivers around the world remain practically unpopulated.

Water Stress

The term ‘water stress is commonly used to describe the problem. It refers to the water yield to water demand ratio in a certain country. An exceeding demand translates to a water stressed country. The research conducted in Azerbaijan forebodes that we, too, will enter the ranks of such states in 2040

Global water stress map. Source: World Resources Inst. It is absolutely crucial to understand the problem on a regional scale. No country alone can shoulder the water problem, because unlike countries, the water cycle in nature is boundless. The biggest rivers of the world flow through territories of several countries, not one. Inadequate water management in one makes the neighbours suffer as well, which might lead to political tension, even conflicts at times.

The world has seen over 500 ‘water’ confrontations over the past 50 years, 20 of them escalating to hostility. Ban Ki-moon, former UN Secretary General, officially admitted: ‘Fresh water may become the main cause of regional wars in the immediate future’. Three billion people across 50 countries may be forced to live in zones of armed conflict due to water shortage. 

Disputes over water were one of the main reasons behind the September 2022 border conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan

What about the situation in the Caspian countries?

Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan has the severest water problem in the South Caucasus because most of the precipitation arrives from the Atlantic Ocean. Türkiye and Georgia, which are both to the west of Azerbaijan, receive more of it. Experts warn that water resources in Azerbaijan will diminish by 15 to 20% by 2040.

While going deeper into the subject, AzVision revealed an unexpected fact: we do not know how much water exactly we have! Zakir Eminov, Doctor of Geography and Director of ANAS Geography Institute says, the water resources in Azerbaijan were calculated back in the 1970s. The last book on the matter was published in 1985: ‘Which makes them the estimations of late ‘70s and early ‘80s. We must establish new commissions and recalculate. Managing anything requires measuring it first. But we do not know how much water exactly we have currently.’  

Zakir Eminov: ‘Citizens need around 500 litres of water a day’

The population in Central Asia is over 75 million and the number is expected to exceed 100 million by 2050. The summers in the region are getting hotter every year, which accelerates desertification. These factors boost water consumption among both the population and agriculture.

Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan is one of the countries that suffer the acutest water problem in Central Asia. The water demand in the country will go up by 46% by 2040, while World Bank forecasts the water resources in Kazakhstan to decrease from 90 to 76m³ a year by 2030. This translates to a water shortage of 12-15m³ per year, that is, 15%.

Aizhan Skakova, candidate of geographical sciences, environmentalist, an ecology expert at the Majilis of the Republic of Kazakhstan points out in her article for AzVision that shortage of water resources in Central Asia is one of the main limiting factors for the development of regional countries. The growth of water consumption leads to competition for water at the regional and local levels among various sectors of the economy. The need to take care of their food and energy security will increase the water requirements and tension over water in the region.

The water in Syr Darya is on the decline

Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan ranks 34th among the most water stressed countries around the globe. Experts warn that the drinking water shortage will go as high as 7 billion cubic metres in 2030. The amount of water per capita has decreased by 48% in the last 15 years, dropping from 3,048 cubic meters (2008) to 1,589.

Only 10% of water resources take shape on the territories of the country, which translates into great dependence on waterflow arriving from neighbouring countries. In the last 50 years, Syr Darya and Amy Darya – the two largest rivers in the region – have lost 20% of their water supply


Denis Sorokin, head of regional information centre at the Scientific Information Centre of the Interstate Coordination Water Commission of Central Asia (Uzbekistan) notes in his interview for AzVision that the country has only 90% of its water needs met at the moment. The country consumes up to 62-63 km3, 58-59 of which is supplied for irrigation, in years of high-water content. In low years, however, the available water resources plummet to 54 km3 and to 47-48 in acute low years, while the water supplied for irrigation drops to 42-44 km3. At the same time, there have been much more of those years with an acute low water content. 

Thirst Equals Hunger

The main point remains that water does not only cover people’s domestic needs. Agriculture accounts for the biggest portion of it. Over 90% of water withdrawn from river basins in Central Asia is used for agriculture. Animal husbandry is the second largest ‘water spender’. Scientists at the University of Twente in Netherlands have calculated that producing a kilogram of beef needs 15 thousand litres of water. One kg of pork accounts for 6 thousand, and one kg of chicken for another 4.3 thousand litres. We are certainly not talking of the water these animals drink: we must also grow their feed…

The plants need no less: growing a kilogram of legumes or rice requires 4 thousand litres, a kg of wheat another thousand litres. A kilogram of potatoes translates to a hundred litres of water. Basically, 2,400 litres of water goes into making one hamburger. 

Water used to produce a kilo of various foods, in litres.

Clearly, water scarcity does not only come down to thirst, but also hunger. And agriculture must be the first field to save.

Water’s Number One ‘Enemy’

One of the main reasons behind water shortage is the ever-growing demand for food due to the boost in world population. Around 80% of water resources are spent for agricultural needs.

Garib Novruzlu, deputy director at the Agricultural Research Centre under the Ministry of Agriculture, PhD in Agrarian Sciences says in his interview to AzVision.az that the field is in need of fundamental infrastructural changes: ‘The water from sources is mainly delivered through earth ditches. Say, there is a kilometre from source A to point B, which would take the water 15-20 minutes at most if delivered through concrete canals, whereas it takes the water an entire week (!!!, editor’s note) to reach its destination point. And that is if we are lucky enough to have rapid waters… 

Garib Novruzlu: ‘Fundamental changes must be introduced in water infrastructure’

It is hard to escape the conclusion that if the water infrastructure is not updated fundamentally, applying new technologies in the fields will not yield great effect, whereas applying the new methods after concreting the canals might completely change the picture. For instance, bedropping a hectare of a grain traditionally requires 1,200-1,500 cubic meters, that is 1,55 tons of water, while 30 to 50 tons of water suffice to drip irrigate the same hectare. The difference is about 30 times!

The same problem persists in Kazakhstan. Ayjan Skakova, candidate of geographical sciences, environmentalist, an expert at the Majilis of the Republic of Kazakhstan, says in her interview to AzVision that the efficiency of irrigation systems in the country does not exceed 0.45-.055, which translates into 50% of irrigation waters lost.

The number goes up to 40% in Uzbekistan as well, while agriculture is the driver of the Uzbek economy. The country owes 30% of its economy to this field.

Only 16% of irrigated arable uses drip irrigation technologies and sprinkler systems in Kazakhstan. Basically, most of the irrigation waters seep into the soil. This requires changing the policy of state support in irrigated agriculture. It must be rendered to only those, who implement water-saving technologies

Can cactus be a traditional source of food for our region? Let’s not haste to say ‘no’!

What are Some Other Ways?

There are not plenty of options, in fact. The systemized list of all the advice given by the experts we interviewed is as follows:

·        Saving water

·        Recycling wastewaters

·        Desalinating sea water

·        Cultivating salt tolerant plants in saline soil through genetic technologies. These can be irrigated with salty waters, which substantially saves fresh water.

·        Mass transitioning to drip irrigation

·        Transporting glaciers to regions in more need of water

·        Drilling deep wells.

Each of these methods poses its unique advantages and disadvantages. Rovshan Abbasov, Head of Geography and Environment Department at Khazar University, Ph.D. in Geography recalls an interesting conversation in his interview to AzVision.az.

‘I was posed a very interesting question by a Mexican professor of agronomy. ‘How come you do not grow cacti for food?’, he asked. He went into detail explaining how Mexico covers most of its food demands by cactus, which does not require much water. As I objected that cacti were not traditional for Azerbaijan, he reminded me that both tomatoes and potatoes were once brought from Mexico, and they were also not traditional at the time.’ 

Rovshan Abbasov:

Well, are we ready to see cactus dishes on our dinner tables? Let’s not be too hasty to answer. Another one of our experts insists that there is no other plant that can replace wheat both in and outside Azerbaijan. ‘Maybe there will be one in 50 to 100 years, but it seems unrealistic for now.’

When it comes to desalinating seas, the salinity of the Caspian Sea is much lower than that of the ocean, which translates to less costs to make it drinkable. Azerbaijan has already started moving in this direction and it will play a positive part on both water and food security in the country.

In a broader sense, desalinating a litre of water costs 2.5 USD, that is around 5 manats. Although it might suffice to meet some of the important needs around the household, the method should not be widely relied upon in agriculture. If irrigating a hectare of land costs 3,000 dollars, the product will end up having a phantasmagorical price tag.

Neighbour, have you got running water?

The main path to solve the water problem runs along regional cooperation. For example, Georgia is expected to build five additional dams on the Kura River alone, while Armenia is planning to build around 120 on smaller rivers within the next 10 years. This might leave a serious imprint on Azerbaijan’s food and water security. A fairer distribution of waters in the Kura River must be achieved both within international conventions and through direct negotiations. There is an international convention on managing transboundary rivers, which envelops issues such as ecosystems of these rivers, flow preservation, and equal distribution of water among countries. 

Considering the interests of neighbouring countries is crucial while exploiting transboundary rivers

The Samur river currently covers most of the demand in the Absheron Peninsula, including Baku. However, the glaciers in the Samur basin have melted, the water in the river has naturally decreased, as the demand for it continues to grow. Less water is expected to arrive in Azerbaijan from the Samur River within the existing contracts. We might need to revise those contracts.

The Caspian basin shrinks by 70 cm a year on both Kazakhstani and Azerbaijani shores, which is partly caused by reduction of water in the Ural River. There are 300 reservoirs with a total capacity of 4.9 million cubic meters on the river, which take most of the water upstream. The average water volume in the river used to stand at 9.4 billion cubic meters, whereas it has now plummeted to 5.7. Kazakhstan and Russia are running joint projects to prevent shallowing of the river.

We have thus arrived at a conclusion that escaping water stress and problems in can bring along requires regional cooperation and integration of water management systems in these countries.


The fate of the Aral Sea proves that there is no one who can shoulder the water problem alone

Central Asia has been striving for cooperation in the field lately. In 2023, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan agreed on constructing a hydropower plant on the Narin River. There is also the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination in the region, albeit with no leverage and little authority. Countries around the Aral Sea have established the Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM). But all these do not suffice and there is a need for a more comprehensive coordination.

Liquid Logic

Guided by the principle of justice, water resources in the regions must be distributed equally, considering the interests of all parties. But it is easier said than done. The main point is that energy resources, such as oil, gas, and coal, have a price tag, water, on the other hand, is free. This approach does not satisfy the countries with abundant water. Their rhetoric demands that if some are selling oil gifted to us by nature for money, why should water, also provided by nature, be free?

There are certainly dozens of arguments that render such rhetoric meaningless. But we must first and foremost realize that lack of water is not the culprit. The real problem is the improper management of it. It is a problem that can only be solved jointly.

The alternative is to fight for water. In other words, there is no alternative. We must simply learn to manage water resources together. That’s it. 

  26 December 2023    Read: 3506    Can be read: 2 min.

2 min.